Friday, October 21, 2011

Who to Trust? Teachers or Rupert Murdoch

In reading a recent TU post one might presume that we support or encourage protests and similar anti-authoritarian behaviors. While free thinkers, the TU is rather conformist most of the time and color in between the lines more often than not, especially professionally. We do enjoy a good Youtube riot video as much as anyone and there's plenty of videos of the protest in NYC and elsewhere.   But that's about as close as we like to get. It took a while to arrive at my point but I am heading towards proving that the TU in some ways sees things from ground level(below ground actually) and perhaps more accurately.  We are closer to education than most folks who talk about it.  That is simply something you cannot dismiss in the conversation about education and its future.  We are deeply concerned for the future of our schools.  We are not alone.

Rupert Murdoch has had a lot to say recently on this subject of education and seems to want to move his company closer to it.    He is a smart fella but I think on the subject of education...I might be smarter(I'll pause while you soak in that statement).  His view is blurred by his business mindset and motives and the highlight reel experience he no doubt receives when he visits a school.  Think for a second about why he is starting to talk a lot about education all of a sudden.    My view is blurred by where I work.  You know, in a school with kids.  Its a pretty good school and despite its shortfalls it ends up turning out some pretty amazing young people.  So who has a better feel for what's going on?   One of the most powerful men in the world, or me?  He got shouted down at a recent speech by some folks perhaps as frustrated as we are with the current direction of many reforms.  I can only speculate on their motives.   I think because they resent a lot of current change and he makes a convenient target.  I've been shouted down too(most often by an irate teenager).  I guess that's where the comparisons end.

Did he deserve it?  Well I think he shouldn't expect people to ignore who he is.   Based on his record,  we should be at least suspicious of his motives.  Those people(if they were teachers) probably got all "protesty" because we in teaching are now hypersensitive to people telling us how it should be.  Especially people from the business or political world.   I like to think if Murdoch spent a day with the average American teacher he'd realize a few things.  Not the least among them is that teachers know how it really is better than anyone else.  This that idea classrooms and the teaching in them have not changed 50 years is more than a slight misrepresentation of fact.   Of course someone must guide kids through their education...they are kids after all.  The classroom dynamic has not been as fluid as in other sectors of society like our economy and that is not all bad.  I know TU''s resident thesis man(Steve) could more successfully counter his points but I will attempt to do so none the less. This is not because we feel threatened and want to attack or justify our point of view over others(though deep down that may be why).  It is in the hope that it will foster a greater understanding of what we see as part of the problem. 

To begin, WTF?  My favorite acronym as an expression of disbelief.  (To maintain our PG rating I'll explain it as What's That For?)  Hey Rupert Murdock...WTF?  Are you living in a bubble?  How dare you try to simplify everything and reduce the mission of our schools solely to an academic pipeline of global employees.  Schools aren't companies.  The goal is not profit.  The goal is people.  That alone pokes some big hole in Murdoch's bucket.  Harlem Success is great.  Many charter schools are great.  No doubt so are the schools you mention in your speeches.  But before we go dismantling one of the most significant social and cultural institutions anywhere in the world let's give some forethought to the potential consequences.   Let's also not do so because people like Murdoch have convinced us they are all "failing." Instead consider how current top down changes are hampering efforts to do quality work in our schools. Many reform attempts have led to regulation  and "improvements" that have buckled some pretty great things schools did. Many of my colleagues will admit we do not feel the quality education we are providing today is not exactly what it was even 5 years ago. 

I will admit some of my objections to his and similarly framed ideas were originally based on their potential impact on my profession.  But with careful consideration I object on a far deeper level.  The idea that learning can be so easily manipulated and controlled is a dangerous one.  If I learned anything as a teacher its that things are usually more complex than they appear.    Demanding more from everyone does not equal an increase in quality output.   Programs and results may at first appear valuable and look good on paper, only to yield under closer examination or when implemented.   I have seen this firsthand with numerous online learning programs. 

The intent to profit should never be a consideration in our decisions on education.  But it has crept in slowly and as such we should place more scrutiny on reform ideas that involve public funds to private enterprise.  One approach being pushed from the Murdoch camp is to use technology to remedy our ills and make things better.   Education is far too complex a process to digitize and then plug a child in to some software.  That is information, not education.  Standardized test may show acquisition of knowledge but what has been lost?  Hard to tell as most modern measures of learning are subjective.  What's being measured?  How? Under what conditions?  Using a test?  Are the measures fair and equitable?  What's the wisdom in that?   Bottom line is this:  What motivates Murdoch and Newscorp is clearly making money.  What motivates teachers is what is good for kids. 

At 6:20 he starts to lay out main ideas.

Specifically Murdoch contentions are that "The Key is Software" and we can do better by creating a "More Personalized Education."     I wasn't as sure about his 3rd point since he is boring but it seemed to be simply using analytics to give kids access to limitless resources catered to best suit them. Thus they wouldn't be stuck learning at the same pace. I suspect it was something about how asynchronous education is the key.   Sounds great.  Who could argue with those ideas?  Me.

Distance Learning, Virtual Classrooms or whatever they go by have obvious advantages.  I sat so far back in one survey class in college it could have been considered distance learning.  I've also taken a few real ones and they served their purpose.  Can't say I learned a great deal that stuck with me though.  Their growth in recent years has been exponential.  Driven in part by the spiraling costs of higher education. While quite different in business approach and market, for profit higher education like the University of Phoenix illustrates how such an concept has supporters and detractors.  I remember a piece PBS did on Michael Clifford a while back that I found very informative.

But do not mistake access to information for a learning community.  There are problems with the any technology. On the front end there are always going to be kinks and bugs or issues with the transition.  Is the infrastructure in place in many of these locations to support the volume of traffic?   There are issues with the access, maintenance and reliability.  These will be less significant as schools integrate more and more digital resources over time.  The trend is for high ranking administrators and those at the top to view technology as the perfect solution.  It becomes a symbol for a "quality" education.  Teachers and learners more often think that while useful, these experiences are no substitute for face to face interaction.    In business terms a shift in this direction would be akin to expecting online shopping to replace brick and mortar schools.    Over reliance of technology can be problematic.  Forgive me for not trusting a billionaire but is it truly cost effective in the long term for our society?  This Education Marketplace mentioned by my colleague what's being sold here?  I fear it is our future. 

Once we are reliant on these technologies and systems, who controls the curriculum and any needed shift?  Who is held accountable for the quality?  A test might tell you whether a kid "learned" but what if they didn't?   Experience tells me that the under-performing kid in a traditional classroom might encounter even more issues in a virtual one.  Not all kids are motivated or mature enough to go this route.  One of the biggest hang-ups with our neighboring district's BLAST initiative has been parental approval and sign-off.   These issues were unforeseen by planners.  Not so for those with daily interactions with the learners and their parents.  We see things.  One advantage to synchronous learning is that it allows students to collaborate and support each other. This builds a sense of community with their peers, teachers and school.  Skilled individuals can yoke this and use these communities as a source of motivation and pride(just read the last post if you don't understand).  One can create online communities.  Its just that they not the same.  Part of the equation maybe but not the answer.  They should not be elevated to anything more than just a tool to help improve education.
Should computers replace people in learning?  In a normal environment computers are usually powerful tools.  The one thing schools are not is normal.  In this landscape teachers and people are more reliable than technology.  When problems occur I trust people.  When kids act up you need people.  When a kid needs encouragement and support you need people.  Murdoch is wrong to think that companies or software can do better with all of our children.  Most young people are significantly more dependent on adults than what those who don't deal with them everyday think.  They need people they know to help guide them.  Children need adults to learn from and they need relationships with these people to apprehend their world.  I don't really want to send my kids to an Apple store for their education and that seems to be the promise being extended here. We should approach with caution the Walmart of Education mentality as the cost vs quality balance should be important but shouldn't tip too far towards reducing costs.   A "one stop select what you want digital world of learning" isn't that far off.  But it would be a sad shell of what we could do. 

Is our nation doing as well as it can?  Certainly not.  But I don't so much worry about that.  Parents don't worry about that.  We worry about our own kids in our own communities.  I worry about how ideas hatched by those who don't teach real people could affect what we are all trying to accomplish.  Comparisons to Asia or elsewhere are thus less relevant to most of us normal folks with our feet on the ground.  Murdoch and others explain away the difference in achievement as simply a product of the school and education.  All responsibility lies with the schools.  Well when no one else takes on the responsibility for kids schools I guess should.  But be careful about how then you judge the result.  

Murdoch's Motives
I am more than a bit curious about why Mr. Murdoch has turned his attention to the plight of poor schoolkids.  We are after all talking about the same guy, head of Newscorp responsible for the British phone hacking scandal. A ruthless corporate pirate with billions to show for his efforts.  But also a charismatic convincing guy and if I wasn't a teacher I think I'd listen to what he had to say.  That thought frightens me.    He lists examples of innovation and suggests and path to the future.      Enter "his company" as a medium to access this.  See the problem? 

I think Murdoch thinks of education as a cash cow.  I just have an ideological problem with the idea that knowledge is proprietary.  And make no mistake that is the backbone of this idea Murdoch is talking about.  Competition instead of collaboration.  For profit and education...those two concepts are irreconcilable.  When push comes to shove Return on Investment will be factored in above learning when decisions are made by businessmen and not educators. 

Even more disturbing is how people can misrepresent what is taking place.  It has become a cyclical blame game where the most influential carries the least blame for under-performance. I suspect no one is entirely correct in what they think is happening since most views are either too global or too local to know the reality.  I know that some kids just aren't learning.  I'd argue about why.   Here's more reasons to be wary of Murdoch.  What works in some places won't work or even be able to be replicated everywhere.  Education is only as important as any individual thinks it is. 

Where do we agree?
Schools have to adapt, change and improve.  Technology will and should be part of this.  Too many kids aren't getting what they need.  So we can and must do better.  But it doesn't start at 5 years old or end when they graduate or even end when the bell rings to dismiss for the day.  It doesn't simply entail giving them access to knowledge.  Technology will never replace a teacher.  It is a tool and in the right hands empowers individuals to do and become more.  Both student and teacher.  It can also alter things in unforeseen ways.  At my 4 year old's soccer game this weekend I watched at least 3 parents engage with their I-phones  more than their kids.  Sad.  Does Murdoch throw this little tidbit in his speech about "human capital" and teachers to disarm us or does he really mean it?   Who knows.  All I know is that if the choice is that every kid is indeed a valuable and unique individual.  To truly educate a kid you have to get to to know that kid.   All I can do is try to remember that on a daily basis and whenever and wherever I can try to inject some sanity into the conversation about how we ought to be teaching our kids.

In a future post maybe I'll attempt to knock Bill Gates off his educational pulpit.  Whatever the subject the one thing I think the TU prides itself on is the ability to conduct civil discourse.  Disagreements today seem so polemical that the ability to talk freely with someone who disagrees seems a lost art.  Especially when they stand to realize we are right.  :)

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